At first glance, Lawrence Osborne’s latest novel, On Java Road, seems to focus on the 2019 political climate in Hong Kong, but it soon becomes apparent that this serves more as a setting for what is a story of friendship, betrayal and, perhaps, redemption. The book, indeed, could possibly have been set at any time in Hong Kong’s modern history. The city has had its share of upheaval over the decades; Osborne’s story isn’t dependent on his choice of the most recent. He is a master of noir and it’s the atmosphere and place that are at the heart of this book.
Adrian Gyle is a veteran British reporter, but one who has never quite made a name for himself. Instead of headlining talks at the FCC, he’s more likely to be found at Fung Shing, a North Point restaurant just below his flat on Java Road. He wasn’t completely FILTH—Failed in London, Try Hong Kong—and had a reason to be there: his old university friend, Jimmy Tang.
The two studied together at Cambridge, where in their free time they translated Li Bai’s poem, “The Exile’s Letter”. They were determined to write a more accurate translation than Ezra Pound’s, recognized despite the fact that he didn’t know Chinese. The friendship in Li Bai’s poem becomes a theme of this novel, as does Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler, a book Jimmy’s father had given to him and Jimmy gives to Adrian at Cambridge. It’s this line from Walton’s book that Osborne excerpts:
Use him as though you loved him, that is, harm him as little as you may possibly, that he may live the longer.
The two friends in Osborne’s story would become so close that Jimmy would call Adrian his comrade, sometimes using the English and sometimes the Cantonese.
Jimmy was a scion of one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest families, and I was a scholarship boy from a small town no one has ever heard of. But being at university together had made us equals. Now, more or less a quarter of a century later, we were friends again in the very different environment of Hong Kong, and the gap, of course, had reappeared. He was a millionaire socialite, I was a struggling—and one could fairly say declining—reporter. Even when we were undergraduates I had sensed that he was someone who might slip between your fingers and disappear, even though he had always appeared so radiantly solid, so armed with life’s gifts. Even then, among only a handful of people studying Chinese in that medieval university, we had shared some kind of mental territory that was invisible to other people. Tenuously, we still did.
Jimmy and his wife Melissa, also from a Hong Kong tycoon family, often invite Adrian to extended family gatherings at their home in the Mid-Levels.
Over the years I had come to think of their home as the most elegant in Hong Kong, even though it was old-fashioned, creaky in its way, and stripped of modern technology. It was deliberately Victorian because that had been Melissa’s father’s more Western taste, but gradually her own, and more Chinese sensibility had begun to prevail. The chandeliers were statically ominous, the wall tapestries showed Forbidden City scenes that I couldn’t place stylistically, suspended between Orientalism and the actual East, and the terra-cottas were now everywhere, raised on pedestals or shelved inside niches, museum quality and a shade too proud of themselves.
But all is not well with the Tangs, despite their seemingly perfect home. Melissa confides in Adrian, telling him that she’s worried Jimmy is seeing another woman. And a young one at that. Adrian claims that’s not true and promises to tell Melissa if he sees anything amiss. But Jimmy ends up putting Adrian in a tough position, bringing him along on his yacht with his much-younger girlfriend, a student activist named Rebecca To. Their friendship is put to test after photos are clandestinely taken—and published in the newspaper—of the three on the yacht. Scandal erupts over Jimmy’s affair and Adrian’s complicity.
The story moves from Adrian’s home in North Point, among the many funeral parlors, to the Mid-Levels of the Tang home, the China Club in Central, the Peak, beaches of Shek O, and the Tai O Heritage Hotel on Lantau (a former marine police station from 1902), where Adrian goes to escape the drama of Jimmy’s scandal.
The Heritage lay on the edge of the island, with somber jade mountains on the water opposite it, its rooms painted white, many with original fireplaces and French windows. Since there were only nine rooms its privacy was unmatched. I would know every other person there at any given moment. Moreover, there was no road running past it, just a footpath that ended in a jetty where ferries once used to stop. There I could take my coffee every morning and sit with my legs dangling over the waves.
On Java Road is not just a story of a friendship, but it’s also a love letter to Hong Kong. Towards the end of the story when Melissa is thinking of her family’s own getaway until the scandal blows over, Adrian muses: